HOLMBERG: Where has all the mistletoe gone?

Posted at 11:37 PM, Dec 10, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-11 07:25:17-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - For generations, mistletoe was a key part of the Christmas decorations and festivities here and in English-speaking colonies around the world.

Most houses had  a small bundle to prompt a little holiday smooching.

But when was the last time you saw the real thing?  Florists used to carry it, but good luck with that now.

One of the key suppliers in the U.S., Tiemann’s Mistletoe, has been slammed by the Texas drought.

Of the thousand or so species around the world, 20 are endangered. Some are in  England and New Zealand, following the decline of apple orchards there, according to the US Geological Survey.

Here, it seems mistletoe is doing fairly well, but mainly in the oldest trees, some along the James River plantations and in Civil War era farms, like the Janeway estate in Hanover County and the vast Pemberton farm further west on Old Ridge Road.

“It’s been growing for, as long as I know, about as long as we’ve owned the property that we bought in the Great Depression,” said 16-year-old Ed Pemberton, who helps run the 754-acre farm.  “We’ve never harvested any of it, except for a few sprigs every year for Christmas.”

They have problems with folks stopping by the roadside trees, whipping out their shotguns and blasting a ball of mistletoe out of the ancient hackberry trees.  

But, as far as Ed can remember, they’ve never had to call the police to get their mistletoe back and encourage the offenders to git.

“Usually because my brother shows up and in his truck you can pretty much see the shotguns . . . so it’s kind of obvious you want to get out of there.”

A big cluster can be worth hundreds of dollars. A small bouquet can bring $25 or so.

The Janeway estate in Hanover County has lots of mistletoe, mainly in their 150-year-old trees. But one fairly young tree – 40 to 50 years old – is clouded with mistletoe.

This evergreen parasite has been a powerful winter tradition since 200 years before the birth of Christ.

The Ancient Druids believed this round cloud of green in the midst of the trees laid bare by winter were the souls of the mighty oaks they worshipped.

The milky white berries, loved by songbirds but toxic to humans (they have been looked at for cancer treatment), were part of the Druid’s post-winter solstice fertility rights.

Sprigs were hung from door jams to ward off gnomes and other evil. Warring parties meeting under mistletoe had to lay down arms for the day, which is perhaps where the kissing tradition began.

Mistletoe is an odd plant - a parasite that grows onto tree branches from seeds in bird droppings, pulling energy from the sun as well as tapping into the water and nutrients of the host trees.

It seems to be fading quietly from Americana. A 2011 New York Times story noted that demand, as well as supply, is way down in the Big Apple.

Perhaps mistletoe is just too ugly and stubby to survive in our shiny culture.

And nowadays, teens and even pre-teens don’t need an ancient rite to get their nerve up to kiss someone.

That, to me, is a shame.

That’s my take, post yours here on